WBR: On Not Sharing Everything
Miriam and Ronald sat down with me to hear feedback about their child. We started by reviewing the questions they hoped I would answer.
Miriam talked about one of her questions. She explained how she both wanted, and didn’t want, to know something about her son.
Doesn’t that sound fascinating?
She knew herself so well. She knew the answer she wanted was big and scary, and she wasn’t sure if she could handle it. What she said next was so important.
Except…. I can’t remember what she said next. I’m not sure I ever heard it. I was already leaning forwards, on the edge of my seat. Nodding furiously, mouth slightly open. I was so eager to share what I knew and what I thought could help. I had to hold myself back from literally raising my hand.
I had the perfect answers to their questions.
Inside, I was whispering, “This is amazing. I can help this family. I know the right answers here. If they’ll just give me a chance to tell them my information….”
I could barely hear Miriam over the impatient hum of my internal voice. She was saying…. something, but how could it be more important than what I wanted to tell her? Didn’t they want to hear what I’d learned?
You already know where this is going.
This was over a decade ago now, though, so I did not know where this was headed. Metaphorically, I was driving a car, at night, with no headlights on.
When it was finally my turn to speak, I summarized whatever word or two I’d heard Miriam say. I took a deep breath. I launched into a delicate, complex, multilayered analysis of their child’s problem.
It was textbook-level perfect. I matched my language to the family’s. I used their own words. I gave examples that made the test results come alive. I spun metaphors like silk. I gave practical, ‘real world’ recommendations. It was all-inclusive, exhaustive even.
Well, maybe exhausting is a better word.
Miriam and Ronald sat quietly. No doubt they were dazzled speechless by my 30-minute monologue of incredible insights. I was so thorough, they didn’t even have any questions. When it was over, I walked excitedly over to the main office to share my success with my supervisor.
He also was clearly spellbound by my comprehensive construction. He sat in silence for a full minute. I assume he was pondering how on earth he’d trained me so well.
Finally, he asked me softly, “So… uh… do you think the family was ready to hear all that?”
Have you ever been falling asleep when your whole body feels like it’s falling, startling you awake? Hypnic jerks, they’re called. At that moment I had a hypnic jerk, but while awake.
I still feel my face flush thinking about this moment. There can be a deep sense of shame that comes with making a mistake or not knowing something we think we should have. This is the kind of moment you want to bury, and never think about again.
It’s also the kind of moment that is most worth sharing, because it's the most illuminating.
This moment was a powerful introduction to an idea I’d never thought of before:
I do not have to share everything I know or learn during an evaluation.
This moment was also the first time I’d been able to hear – even if after the fact – a set of common secret questions:
Help me hear only what I’m ready for.
Help me hear only what I can take in.
We often know more about a child we've assessed than a parent could ever want, need, or even process in one sitting.
In Building Motivational Interviewing Skills, Second Edition, David Rosengren urges:
"Remember, our clients are people, not information receptacles. At times it is easy to feel that there is significant information that clients must know, and we feel pressured to provide it all at once. In this situation, our expertise can be an impediment; our training indicates that clients need to know all of this information, so we bury them under a barrage of data. This issue becomes particularly salient when information provision is part of our job description. It's taken us many years to acquire this knowledge, and it's probably not realistic to expect that clients can process it all in a matter of minutes."
Even if your feedbacks are 2 hours long, or held over multiple days, there's no way you could tell a parent all you know. You've spent at least a half-decade acquiring knowledge about child development and assessment. Your view is shaped by years of training experience. You see this family's child from a completely different perspective than they can.
Families need to hear about some of what you can see from your vantage, of course. That's what this job is. But they don't always need or want to see everything you can see.
A common metaphor used for evaluations is that they provide a road map. This metaphor works because from our perspective, we can zoom out and see the whole path. We can see where a child's been, where they are now, and how to get where they want to go.
But the metaphor also tells us that what we leave out is just as important. A map with too many extraneous details only obscures the right path.
This is one of those lessons I often need to relearn.
If you’ve read this blog before, you’ve noticed I’m still learning to break my thoughts down into bite-sized chunks. But because you’ve read this far, I know that you too are a deep thinker.
So maybe you can relate when I say my thoughts sprawl like the catacombs under Paris or Odessa. They're full of hidden passages, recursions, dead ends, and hallways to places unknown. Interesting for the dedicated explorer, maybe. A troublesome labyrinth for someone who needs a map to get from point A to point B.
I've had to learn to draw better (less winding, more interactive) maps. What helps when I'm writing a report is to limit my word count. I try to keep my Impressions section to 2 pages: strengths, weaknesses, impact of profile, and general recommendations. For some of you, who naturally only write a paragraph or two in a summary, 2 pages may sound unfathomably long. For others, 2 pages will sound unbearably brief.
Given the way I write, 2 pages is not much wiggle room. I have to give the reader a coherent map that fits into a relatively small space. If I zoom out too much -- if explain that there’s a hidden side chamber over there or an alternate route over here -- I go over my word count. It’s a tangible signal that I’m sharing too much of what I know.
I may not be lost, exactly, but I’m at risk of losing my reader.
To help me get even better at this skill, I’m trying to shorten these blog posts, too. Even topics I’ve broken up into 3-6 posts are acres long… maps of a state when we could more productively look at a city. So, from now on, no more blog posts that go past 1250 words or 100 sentences. Blogs beyond that will be cut off -
Note: You see what I did at the end there, right? Also, this post was written at the 5th grade level. It is exactly 1250 words long and 100 sentences long. 4 of the sentences are hard to read and 2 are very hard to read.